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US spectrum plan eases frequency frustrations… to an extent

The US government has published a long-awaited National Spectrum Strategy that could pave the way for more than 2,700 MHz of frequencies to be freed up for new use.

Mary Lennighan

November 14, 2023

3 Min Read

But while the strategy comes as great news for those in the industry that have been lobbying for spectrum repurposing, it’s important to note that it really is just a first step. The frequencies in question, across five bands, will be studied for potential new uses, and the study could go either way. The next step will see the Biden-Harris administration develop and publish an Implementation Plan to carry out the strategy.

Nonetheless, this is significant step forward. In fact, the biggest news here is arguably that there is a spectrum strategy at all.

Previous president Donald Trump gave the go-ahead for the development of a spectrum strategy, with 5G and beyond in mind, as long ago as 2018, having pulled the plug on policies developed by the previous administration. But nothing ever materialised. Hence the buzz around this week’s announcement.

The strategy was developed by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), working with the FCC and the Executive Branch agencies that rely on spectrum for their missions. It is accompanied by a Presidential Memorandum designed to establish a spectrum policy and process for resolving spectrum-related conflicts.

That last point is particularly pertinent, given that the roll out of 5G services in the US was dogged by a lengthy battle between the mobile operators and the aviation industry over the possibility of interference.

In total the strategy identifies 2,786 MHz of frequencies for in-depth study designed to determine their suitability for potential new uses; that’s well above the 1,500 MHz the NTIA had originally aimed for, the government reminds us. It includes over 1,600 MHz of midband spectrum that could be particularly useful for the mobile industry.

The NTIA will study the following bands, noting that the spectrum could support a range of uses, including mobile broadband, drones and satellite operations:

  • 3.1 GHz-3.45 GHz

  • 5.03 GHz-5.091 GHz

  • 7.125 GHz-8.4 GHz

  • 18.1 GHz-18.6 GHz

  • 37.0 GHz-37.6 GHz

It has pledged to complete its study within two years.

Reaction from the industry has been broadly supportive, while also recognising that the publication of the strategy is just the beginning of the journey.

“It is a critical first step, and we fully support their goal of making the 7/8 GHz band available for 5G wireless broadband and their decision to re-study all options for future full-power commercial access to the lower 3 GHz band,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of industry body the CTIA.

The body has been one of a number of industry voices calling for the use of the lower 3 GHz band, which is currently occupied by the military, for 5G services. Numerous studies have suggested that the two could coexist.

It has also been one of many to play the China card, with regard to making more spectrum available for mobile.

“In order to meet growing consumer demand for 5G, close America’s widening 5G spectrum deficit and counter China’s global ambitions, America’s wireless networks need 1500 MHz of additional full power, licensed spectrum within the next ten years. Failure to make this spectrum available risks America’s economic competitiveness and national security,” Attwell Baker said.

“The plan released today will secure our digital future by eliminating the structural problems that hold back U.S. wireless innovation,” added Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.

“For six years, the United States has lacked a comprehensive spectrum strategy,” he said. “This lack of a national plan has created increasing tensions between the FCC’s efforts to meet our ever-expanding need for wireless capacity and federal agencies trying to carry out vital missions from weather forecasting to national security. These tensions, in turn, have compromised our ability to develop new wireless technologies and undermined our ability to maintain global leadership.”

You would be hard pushed to claim that the publication of the National Spectrum Strategy will ease all of those tensions. But it’s certainly a start.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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